Sean Carey

Return to Chagos: No, minister

– Sean Carey

In response to my article, “Clock is ticking for the UK over Chagos”, (22 July) Professor J. Manrakhan (29 July) raised this question: should two former British Foreign Secretaries, Jack Straw and David Miliband, be permitted to escape censure for their decisions regarding the Chagos Archipelago made while they held office. The answer is simple: considering that both have been party to sustaining one of the most shameful episodes in modern British colonial history, it is obvious that they should and must be held to account.

But the big point I was attempting to make is that the policy blocking the Chagos Islanders’ right of return in 2004, as well as the unilateral declaration of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago/British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010, has been driven more by civil servants in Whitehall keen to protect the decisions of their forebears rather than because of any initiatives by Foreign and Commonwealth Office ministers taking a fresh look at the facts and coming up with imaginative solutions.

That said, there are important differences in the public position of the two former British Foreign Secretaries over Chagos that are worth exploring. Jack Straw famously said in a 2009 interview on a BBC Radio 4 programme on the role of the Privy Council that in retrospect he should not have used Orders in Council to prevent anyone having the “right of abode” in the Chagos Archipelago, but instead should have consulted Parliament, which surely would not have agreed.

Of course, we don’t know what influenced Straw to confess that he had, as he put it, “exchanged speed for legitimacy”. Perhaps as a qualified barrister and his post-FCO stints as Leader of the House of Commons and then Secretary of State for Justice he had had second thoughts about the profoundly undemocratic nature of the Royal Prerogative. If this really was the case, then Straw should be commended for changing his mind. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the declaration was made after his ability to shape FCO policy on Chagos had ended.

By contrast, David Miliband has said nothing about his decisions concerning Chagos when he was Foreign Secretary in the last Labour government. Nevertheless, it is widely known that despite, in his presence, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, giving an explicit assurance to the Mauritius Prime Minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, and Foreign Minister, Dr Arvin Boolell, at the Commonwealth summit held in Trinidad in November 2009 that he would not proceed with the proposed marine park, the FCO decided unilaterally to declare the MPA on 1 April, 2010. Little wonder, then, that Miliband was accused of bad faith by the Mauritius Prime Minister. And no surprise either, that Miliband’s failure to keep his promise has led to Mauritius initiating proceedings last December against the UK under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

I suppose in due course David Miliband, especially now that he has agreed to undertake question-and-answer sessions at more than 20 UK universities in his new role as the Labour Party’s student ambassador, will reveal why both he and Gordon Brown thought that the very laudable aim of creating a marine reserve in the Chagos Archipelago should be at the expense of rather than in partnership with the exiled Chagossians and Mauritius.

In the meantime, there is the evidence from the Wikileaks US Embassy cable of 15 May 2009 that the MPA was specifically designed by senior foreign office officials, including Colin Roberts, the current BIOT Commissioner, to prevent those Chagossians who wish to return to their homeland from doing so.

But surely one of the most interesting events in recent years concerns the timing of the MPA announcement on Maundy Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the Mauritius National Assembly had been dissolved for the general election on 5 May, 2010. This meant that there was no time for a parliamentary debate or statement. A coincidence? No chance. Moreover, Miliband had much bigger fish to fry, which means that he would not have been aware that the UK might expect to gain a political advantage on the basis of a forthcoming election in Mauritius, but officials would have been and advised him accordingly.

Which brings us to the present. Despite pre-election promises that a future Conservative government would ensure a “fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”, William Hague has so far not endorsed any substantive change on policy regarding Chagos although he continues to make sympathetic noises, and recently directed his officials to meet with representatives of different Chagossian groups on 27 July.

It’s a familiar pattern of British government ministers appearing well-meaning without conceding the right of return. So who is behind the inaction? No prizes for guessing the answer. Furthermore, as the clock ticks towards a decision on the Islanders’ right of return by the panel of judges at the European Court of Human Rights, expect FCO officials to initiate all sorts of welcome but insignificant policy moves on Chagos (no doubt with the explicit approval of the Foreign Secretary so yes, Hague is also culpable) — more visits by first-generation Chagos exiles to their homeland, more tidying up and repairs to graveyards and churches, and more field trips for young, hand-picked Chagossians with approved conservation groups — in order to demonstrate that FCO officials are not only eminently fair and reasonable people, but doing their best in the face of a very difficult situation. The last thing these civil servants want is for the court in Strasbourg to think that they are the “bad guys”.

Sorry, but it’s too late — you’ve been rumbled.

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